How to Prepare for College Literature Courses

No matter what your college major is going to be, you will probably have to take a college literature course. For some people, this is a joy; for others, a nightmare. But it doesn’t have to be. No professor wants to make students fail. But if you want to do well, it’s important to be prepared. You might not have any idea what book or works a professor will choose (some professors use their classes as a means to sell their own books that would otherwise never sell more than 10 copies to family members), but you can still be prepared.

BEFORE You Get to College

1) Pay attention in your English class.

Charles Dickens was paid by the word, so all of his works are long. But that doesn’t mean you should snore through them. And there are a lot of literary works that are actually fun and exciting. So listen to what your English teacher says about authors, time periods, and characters.

2) Learn to write.

Literature courses always involve writing, so it’s important that you spend time learning how to analyze a character, read between the lines of a plot, and then write about it. Put some thought and effort into it, but understand no one is expecting your essay to be the second coming. Simply make sure your thoughts are organized, clear, and backed up with examples.

3) Accept books as friends.

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You’re not likely to get through a book in 2 or 3 hours, see fantastic computer-generated illustrations, or have your ears assaulted with surround sound while reading a book, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a book as well as any movie or TV show. Use your mind to see people, places, and events. Let the extra time you spend reading be like time spent with good friends. Why a character does something is often far more understandable when reading a book. And when you understand it, it makes more sense, and is easier to follow.

WHEN You Are In College

1) Lose all your preconceived ideas.

No two professors teach the same, so if you had a high school English teacher that was boring as watching grass grow, that doesn’t mean the college professor will be too. Second, you can’t assume all literature courses want the same thing. Some professors like to look at the big picture. Some prefer to focus on specific characters. Third, you haven’t read it all, so there are books out there that you will love, even if you haven’t found any yet. No matter what subject is most interesting to you, there are books written on it.

2) Immerse yourself.

Many books, especially older ones, lose meaning because we can’t relate to them. But that doesn’t have to be the case. If you know from your course syllabus that you’re going to be reading “A Farewell to Arms” by Hemingway, spend a little time taking a glance at what life was like during World War I for soldiers and other people who dealt with seemingly meaningless death on a daily basis. Also, movie adaptations of a book, while not always accurate, often provide a distracting way to get more emotionally involved. When the literature hits you on a personal level, it has more meaning, and the course becomes more enjoyable.

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3) Talk to others who enjoy literature.

One of the biggest mistakes college students make before getting into a literature course is commiserating about it with someone else who doesn’t like literature. How in the world can you approach something with anything but dread if all you hear about it are complaints? Instead, find someone who loves literature and ask them why. What is so funny about “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight”? “The Iliad” might be lengthy, but for people that love blood and gore, this fits the bill tremendously. Even if the person you end up talking to is the professor, talk to someone. Ask the why questions. Ask for the subtleties that make reading certain pieces more like reading an inside joke. The more you understand, the better prepared you’ll be.

4) Understand what’s required of you.

No, I’m not talking about course assignments, but rather what’s required of you as an individual. Unless you’re majoring in literature, odds are your professor isn’t expecting Pulitzer Prize-winning essays or meticulously constructed papers that you can defend in front of a panel of PhD’s. Rather, your professor wants you to see the world as a combination of subjects. How ignorant would you consider a person who doesn’t know the speed of light, how many planets are in our solar system (counting Pluto), or the basic principle of gravity? Likewise, someone who doesn’t know at least a little about “Huckleberry Finn” or “Moby Dick” is not going to be considered more than incomplete. So rather than try to suffer through a course, prepare yourself to get something out of it.

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College literature courses are often required because part of being a productive member of society means being a well-rounded student. Only the geekiest of literature geeks will expect you to quote lines from Shakespearean plays or recognize their oh-so-clever quotes from a Dostoevsky novel, but the rest of society will want you to experience more out of life than movies and TV shows. Literature will get you there. If you prepare, you might just find that you really enjoy it after all.